By Matt Wasserman
DETROIT—The lights were turned off at 2 a.m., but the conversations went until dawn at the Unitarian church where many of the 150 attendees of the new Student for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) second national convention were crashing. While some of us slept in the basement — exhausted by long journeys to Detroit and 15-hour days spent in airless rooms, debating proposals and learning how to build a movement — others gathered upstairs in groups large and small.
Sharing experiences, talking strategy and making connections, there was a waft of possibility in the air, a palpable feeling that we could actually build a movement of millions, capable of making real change. After observing the four-day convention, longtime radical and old SDSer Michel Albert, who co-founded Z-Net, Z Magazine and South End Press, said he felt more hopeful than he had been in 40 years.
Perhaps the central decision of the convention was the adoption of a national structure; to establish a federation of chapters. Decision-making power will rest in the hands of local chapters, who must approve proposals by a super-majority, while working groups will implement decisions and campaigns on the national level. But more important than any particular proposal or resolution was the process of learning to work together democratically for radical social change.
Among the vision statements passed at the convention was one endorsing “totalist politics.” This means that “we commit to understanding and paying serious attention to race, class, gender, sex, sexuality, age, ability and authority without elevating any but instead recognizing the intrinsic importance of each, and their entwinement and understanding that we must confront the ‘totality’ of human oppression,” as well as “embodying in the present the values and institutional features we want to see in future society.”
The new SDS remains a largely white organization, but it is making a serious effort at combating patriarchy, white supremacy and other systems of oppression within its ranks and without — and it has some of its strongest bases in state universities rather than the elite universities where the old SDS was strongest.
Escalating Campus Resistance
The convention was largely focused on forging the connections and trust necessary to struggle together, as well as building an organization that embodies the new society in our hearts — a society in which everyone participates in making the decisions and structures that affect them. Nonetheless, several campaigns were endorsed.
The most significant endorsement was likely the signing on to the Iraq Moratorium (iraqmoratorium.org), with its call for decentralized antiwar actions during the third Friday of each month starting in September. While it remains to be seen how chapters will put this endorsement into action, the Iraq Moratorium offers a flexible framework for escalating and building resistance to the war where people live, but lets organizers use a variety of tactics depending on the context. Such an approach holds promise for allowing an antiwar core to give focus to the antiwar sentiments of a majority of the U.S. and move them toward effective action, showing people the strength they have when they act together.
The revival of SDS by a new generation reflects, as much as anything else, a commitment to studying history to understand how processes of social change and mass radicalization occur — and putting this into practice. We are not interested in holding a sign or chanting to show that we are on the side of the angels; we are interested in organizing for power and changing the world. To quote some of the section titles of the vision statement adopted on “Who we are, what we are doing”: “we want to win,” “we are in it for the long haul” and “we are organizers.”
Since its re-founding in 2006 (See Sidebar), SDS has been steadily growing in strength and numbers, with chapters starting across the country. The structure put in place and connections made at the convention lays the foundation for continued, if not explosive, growth when SDS goes back to the campuses this fall. And as the war drags on and the Democrats fail to take decisive action to stop it, more and more youth will be receptive to radical ideas.
While the Iraq War is not yet producing the rapid, large-scale radicalization and break with mainstream society that occurred during the Vietnam War, if SDS succeeds in capturing the imagination of progressive youth (again) this might well change. What is certain is that SDS members will continue with the patient work of creating a mass radical youth movement — knocking on dorm doors, winning hearts and minds and organizing effective actions and campaigns. As the statement on “who we are, what we are doing” ends: “We are building. Together.”
Matt Wasserman is a member of Reed College (OR) SDS Chapter and a former Indypendent intern. This article does not represent SDS as a whole. For more information, see: studentsforademocraticsociety.org.